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Newspaper homecoming reunites generations of journalists

Irwin Block Special to The Senior Times

November 2011

The McGill daily, published twice weekly, celebrated its 100th anniversary last month as a training ground for generations of journalists.

More than a peer-administered vehicle for emerging minds, it gathered students eager to challenge themselves and others, to take on established ways, find their voices and have fun.

Among those who broke bread together during McGill’s annual homecoming were Supreme Court Justice Morris Fish, retired armed forces colonel Bernard Finestone, former Saturday Night Live writer Anne Beatts, former Liberal cabinet minister Victor Goldbloom, and Mark Starowicz, head of CBC’s documentary unit and radio-TV visionary.

Full disclosure: I was daily news editor in 1965-66.

Jan Wong, who achieved fame as the Globe and Mail correspondent in China during the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989, in her books, acerbic Lunch With Jan columns and reporting on her work undercover as a domestic, has just started as a tenure-track journalism professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B.

At McGill, “I was deep into Maoism. I studied Asian history. People forget that many people were Maoists back then, including my political science professor, Sam Noumoff. I remember writing about the first Chinese students arriving at McGill—that was fun. I wrote stories, they printed them, almost verbatim, and I got that ego buzz, and once you get the buzz, you’re addicted.”

Jan Wong, Larry Black, Bob Chodos.

Wong went to China for year, then got her master’s from the Columbia School of Journalism.

“I was like this crazy Maoist from China and I didn’t think anyone would hire me. So I went to this Ivy League school to get a degree and it worked. The Gazette hired me.”

Larry Black, of New York City, was editor in chief in 1977, studied history and poli sci, but “majored in the McGill daily.”

After dropping out, he worked for the Canadian Press and freelanced for The Independent in New York.

He is now deputy head of marketing at an asset management firm there.

He remembers writing the editorial in November 1976 endorsing the Parti Québécois in the Quebec election, then being denounced by “Maoists, Stalinists and Trotskyists for being reformist and not supporting world revolution.”

He credits the daily with producing “the cream of Canadian journalists.”

“The fact we did not have a journalism faculty, were not told what to do—we had to make it up ourselves—was very appealing to a certain kind of person—self-motivated, critical thinkers who were not in it to advance a career.”

Bob Chodos, New Hamburg, Ont., studied math, but his career as a magazine and book editor and writer began with his “apprenticeship” at the daily from 1963-69.

“All the things I have done in media are based, one way or another, on the daily, including the magazine Inroads, where I am managing editor.”

With other daily alumni, Chodos was a founding editor of the Last Post, a left-wing alternative monthly published from 1969-80.

He credits Patrick MacFadden, daily editor in 1965-66, with “crystallizing” the newspaper’s role as a critical organ. “I have tried to do that with every publication that I’ve been part of.”

Irwin Cotler, Eva Friede, Willa Marcus

Irwin Cotler, editor in chief in 1962-63, happened into the job in part because he liked hanging out and shooting pool at daily offices in the basement of the old Student’s Union building on Sherbrooke W.

“Editing the daily was a great life-enhancing journey. … It refined my analytical, writing and advocacy skills as a student, law professor, human-rights lawyer, and even as member of Parliament and minister of justice.”

Eva Friede, Gazette fashion editor, was photo editor at the daily in the mid-1970s and remembers being on assignment Nov. 15, 1976, at the Paul Sauvé Arena in Rosemount when René Lévesque’s PQ defeated the Liberals.

“I studied psychology, but I majored in McGill daily. Experience is the best teacher and the daily was a fabulous course in journalism. I learned how to edit a newspaper while I waited for film to dry.”

Andrew Phillips, associate editor in 1975, now editorial page editor at The Toronto Star, recalled doing then what he did throughout his career, writing tough stories and managing staff. He also was involved in a far-left group that caught the imagination of many students then.

“I learned a lot about politics, but also about what makes people participate in politics. I became skeptical about people’s motivations in politics. I later went pretty far to the right and I’ve come back toward the middle and left. It made me skeptical about the gap between what people say they mean, and what they really mean.”

Willa Marcus, a Toronto media lawyer, worked on the McGill daily from 1966-69 and said the best thing she got out of it was “FFL – Friends for Life.”

Marcus, who went on to work for CBC radio and television, recalled that the student-run paper could be “worse and better than the mainstream media.”

“We may have been brilliant at times, but nowhere near as often as we thought we were.”

Andrew Phillips, Jennifer Robinson

Jennifer Robinson was managing editor during her years at the daily, ending in 1978 when she was hired by the Edmonton Journal as its first female sports reporter before moving to The Gazette, where she rose to associate editor. She is now communications director for the Neuroscience Division of AstraZeneca, a Swedish biopharmaceutical company.

“The daily taught me to be passionate about journalism and helped me develop an interest in politics. It opened the door for me to a career that I loved. I don’t think I was ever happier than in those years.”

Arnold Bennett, who earned degrees in Canadian history, became Supplement editor during his time at the daily from 1969-74.

“I wrote five articles a week and I’d cram for my exams and write papers in the last month. Sometimes I would use stuff I did on the daily for my papers. It taught me to work the type of insane schedule I still work today.” Because he lost his bid to become editor in 1974, Bennett said he had the time to run for city council, where he was elected for the Montreal Citizens Movement.

Bennett started writing about housing issues in the early 1970s, including the new Quebec rental board, and developed an interest in tenants’ rights, his running for council, and eventually creating his tenants’ hotline and running housing organizations, including 600 units of public housing. “I am basically continuing what I did in the daily 40 years ago.”

Arnold Bennett, Dusty Vineberg, Barbara Halsig

Patrick MacFadden was editor-in-chief of
the McGill daily in 1965-66. He is a retired professor in the School of Journalism and Commun ication at Carleton University.

“In retrospect, the daily was part of a larger movement, since over-dissected, called the ’60s.

“The timing was right. But there’s something else about the daily that gets lost in the vapours of sociology: By chance or good luck, some extremely gifted people came together and expended vast critical energies putting out a paper for no particular reward beyond that of sharing interesting stories.

“Politically all over the block, the daily staff served only the word. They were the cleverest people I’ve ever met.”

Dusty Vineberg was features editor at the McGill daily from 1944-48 and later became a radio/television columnist and feature writer at the Montreal Star after getting her master’s from Columbia University School of Journalism.

She worked first as a public relations officer for Combined Jewish Appeal before being hired at the Star in 1955 – the only woman in the newsroom.

As for her daily experience: “I think I just had a good time. People said we were working for the best damn fraternity on campus. We used to go down to The Gazette to put the paper to bed and I’d be there till 3 a.m. I’d get home and it was very hard to convince my mother I was not at some orgy.”

When the daily became political in the mid 1960s, Vineberg thought it was “like a rag put out in Moscow.”

Barbara Halsig came to Canada from West Germany to earn political science and sociology degrees. She reported for The daily in 1969-70.

“When I started as a professional journalist, my training at the McGill daily allowed me to rise through the ranks very quickly,” said Halsig, who worked for 27 years for Deutche Presse Argentur, including stints as a correspondent in Washington and Ottawa. Since apart from the seal-hunt, her editors were not that interested in Canadian stories, Halsig went back to school to obtain a bachelor’s in education to teach in First Nations communities at the elementary level.

Karl Nerenberg, Patrick MacFadden

Karl Nerenberg became the Supplement Editor while at the Daily from 1964 to 1971. After teaching for five years, he was a radio and television producer on English and French networks.

The daily was “an agency of activism in our time, an agency for investigative journalism, but we didn’t know the term at the time.”

“It was before social media. The daily was the Commons of discourse, dialogue and debate—the agora of the campus.”

During his years at the paper, those who ran it varied in point of view “from small-L liberal, to social democratic, to quasi neo-Marxist, to small-C and big-C Conservative and Maoist.”



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